You don’t know a person until you’ve written 90k words in their shoes

Rearranging my current work in progress in Scrivener (how you know things are getting serious: when there are enough words to require organisation) I came across my initial character sketches for my core characters.

It’s quite delightful to me how much some of them have changed in the writing. Oh, not changed, but matured. Developed. Settled. A little in the way a haircut settles down once you get it home from the hairdresser and treat it the way you do for a week or so. It loses that sharp-edged unreal glamour, but becomes something natural and comfortable. (Hopefully. There’s just no living with some haircuts.)

For instance, where the original reads Izmir is an unremarkable man, it would be more accurate that every other character who’s run into him in the course of the narrative has remarked on him, and the remarks have demonstrated a considerable reputation for acting out that shows an admirable dedication to the art. Bless his cotton socks (which he leaves on the bedroom floors of the disreputable).

In these sketches, one of my characters isn’t even the younger sister of another – they’re cousins – and I wonder how I ever hadn’t realised how tight and close those two needed to be. (She’s also beautiful – I devote a paragraph to talking about it in the sketch, and remark on how she disdains it. She disdains it so much it hasn’t even come up in any of her viewpoint chapters…)

And my policeman lived in a boarding house – obviously before I realised that if he was doofing a married woman they were going to need somewhere to prosecute said liaison. Actually, from this distance the extent to which he’s based on that appalling agent in Boardwalk Empire is making me side-eye myself a little bit. Really, self? I’m so glad we got over that one.

What delights me the most is that this is really only the halfway point in the development of their stories. They – and I – have so much further still to go.

Curb your enthusiasm

I had a meeting the other day about work website content. We were joking that everyone in the (three person) meeting except for the actual web content coordinator had a blog. The other lady turned to me and asked, “What’s your blog about?”

Step one of fantasy nerd withdrawal: I said, “Oh, fantasy fiction, the stuff I read.” Because I don’t like to engage with complete strangers (effectively) about writing because it inevitably leads to questions about my creative work in progress (which is not ready to be shared by dint of being, y’know, in progress, especially with someone whose genuine interest in the details of the genre I have no idea about).

She perked up, and said, “Oh, like Game of Thrones? You’ve read those?”

Step two of fantasy nerd withdrawal: I stick to generic comments. Yes, I’ve read them. I find the television show a more refined and finessed version of the story. Did she enjoy the show?

It was at this point that I started analysing my own behaviour, and saw how I was consciously not engaging fully with the topic (i.e. to the extent that I would with another fantasy nerd) until she provided further indication that she was, in fact, another fantasy nerd, and not just someone who enjoys Game of Thrones on TV.

Let me be clear: it’s not that I didn’t consider her a Real Fan. It’s not that I doubted her ability to hold an interesting conversation on the themes and events and characters of George Martin’s work. It’s that I really, truly, desperately didn’t want to have that moment where I jumped in with both feet talking intricately about fantasy fiction tropes and details and my pet peeves, and see her eyes glaze over with the transparent desire that she’d never brought this up. I’ve had that moment before. I’ve felt like I’ve messed up. Like I’m being mentally catalogued as an overenthusiastic nerd who’s not very interesting to talk with – which is probably only the truth, but it still stings to be dismissed.

And I wondered how much of this is mixed up in the Real Fan business. (There’s also a lot of really poisonous crap mixed up in the Real Fan business. A lot of elitism and selfishness. I have no time for that side of things.) To what extent are real-fan challenges bound up in petulance that this was my space for safe conversations, for knowing I can be enthusiastic, for not worrying about being dismissed, but you have come in and I am uneasy about whether you will dismiss me, so I’m lashing out first.

There’s never any excuse for lashing out. There’s never a reason to be nasty and unpleasant. But having watched myself dancing around my passion for fear of being judged for it, I can sympathise a little with the relief of having a safe space to be enthusiastic.

Mindful self-indulgence

Nothing puts the writing game in perspective like reading the GoodReads progress updates for a book I love. A book I think is plotted with ruthless, ineluctable pacing (“Gee, this is slow and boring”) or a book I think is instantly arresting and seats you immediately in the world (“I have no idea what is happening”) or a book I think has a magnificent cast of fantastically enthralling characters (“I don’t like anyone in this book and I don’t care”).

No matter what you do, someone’s always going to dislike it. However universal your tropes, they’re not going to work for someone. However much you sweat over the phrasing of a sentence, it’s going to confuse someone. And whatever you call your character, someone’s going to think it’s stupid, or it reminds them of an ex they hate.

Vladimir Nabokov said: “I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.”

All you can really do is write the most amazing book for you, and hope that there are enough other people out there who like the things you do to make it worthwhile. Because if you try to write something that will appeal to “everyone”, you’re going to fail anyway.

I like to remind myself of that when my fits of self-indulgent delight tip over into, “Oh god, no one else is ever going to like this.”

Maybe they will.

All the reasons why not

So here's an interesting sidenote to start with: My work internet blocks absolutely no websites or web apps except LiveJournal. Baffling as this lone exception is, it's also tremendously annoying, since the only time I have to journal and comment-respond is in five-minute gaps between work things, and then I can't respond to LJ comments. I have been going, “Oh, well, I'll get them when I'm at home, then!” but at-home computer time is writing or games (in the midst of a Wesnoth revival pending the release of Neverwinter) and I always forget. I don't want to turn off LJ commenting, because I love hearing from you guys however and whenever, but bear this in mind.

Back to point!

Encountered today: 8 Reasons Authors Don't Complete Their Manuscripts.

More than a few of these hit me where I live – and especially there were a couple to which I nodded sagely: I would not have finished Boralos if I had not overcome them. Others I find myself wrestling with right now.

Portrait of the artist as an exemplar of various of these problems )

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Where did you come from?

I have this very vivid memory from my childhood, probably somewhere around the age of 10-12, or thereabouts, of my mother and I getting ready to go out. It was a Queensland summer day, so pretty damn sweltering, and Mum lamented that she was going to have to put on pantyhose in this.

“Why?” I asked. She paused, and the obvious answer was, Because that's what one does. I hurried on with, “I mean, who's going to care if you do or not?”

It was obviously not something she'd thought about before. You wore pantyhose because that was part of being properly dressed – just like she also made up her face (not with foundation, but eyeshadow and lippie, always).

In the end, that day, she still wore pantyhose, but I like to think of that as the thin end of the wedge, and increasingly, as the years passed, she didn't bother more and more.

Years later, I would comment in passing to my maternal grandmother that I held the opinion that I come from an unflinching tradition of no-nonsense women who don't care for society's expectations.

“Oh,” she said. “Really? Do you think so? I've… well, I've always just wanted to be normal. Doesn't everyone?”

It was a highly disorienting moment. Stories in the family of my grandmother include the way she used to quell badly behaved Sunday School boys with one look. I grew up visiting a house full of golf trophies where half of them were hers, and the photograph of my young and trim grandparents on the dresser showed both of them heading down the beach to surf. My sense of Grandma had always been that she held her own, that she was a strong lady, that she couldn't be having with nonsense.

I have always considered irrational societal expectations, norms, “just-becauses” to be nonsense with which I could not be having. And while I do still believe I come from a strong and original line of women, I'm just honestly not entirely sure where that came from.

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Number one: the larch

I've been reading fantasy fiction since I read Victor Kelleher and The Hobbit when I was about 10. I read everything else as well (no, literally, everything – my project for grade 7 was to read every book on the grade-7-only shelves) but I knew I liked that zany stuff. I fell irrevocably into all-fantasy-all-the-time when I discovered the genre as a thing at age 12, courtesy of David Eddings and a helpful librarian. (I remember standing there, staring at the cover of Pawn of Prophecy, with my mind exploding to the tune of “there's a whole body of books like this?” Of course, shortly thereafter the other shoe dropped when I reached the end of Eddings' currently-written works, and discovered that reading fantasy means waiting for the next book.)

But I grew up a sneeze away from the Tropic of Capricorn, basically subtropical, certainly cyclone territory. We had wet seasons when I was a kid, long sticky summers when it would start raining every day punctually between two and four in the afternoon, so three afternoons out of five I would walk home from school in the warm pelting rain with my shoes slung around my neck by their knotted laces. And then I got home, I would dry off and curl up on the couch with a humidity-edged book wherein folks wearing woollen cloaks trudged through frosty forests of oak trees.

This never seemed at all dislocating to me. I can only assume that, in my head, the books were books and the climatic conditions were like dragons – things that happened in the books. It wasn't until I moved south, to a town that actually had visible seasons beyond the wet and dry, that I realised I had no flipping idea what an oak tree looked like, despite practically every book I read using the species name as a shorthand for “and now you know exactly what this forest they're riding through looks like”.

Poinciana? Sure! (I fell out of enough of them as a child, I should be able to spot 'em… also frangipani and their unhelpful hollow branches.) I can recognise a jacaranda even when it isn't in full flower. When someone talks about a fig tree, I expect a banyan.

I started writing Boralos because I came back to my childhood home for Christmas, and watched the fruitbats swarming out of the mangroves at dusk, and thought, “…why am I constantly trying to write European fantasy when this is what flows in my veins?”

Which is absolutely not to say I grew up with hippos up the creek and people having pet pygmy crocodiles. We don't indulge in fantasy to stick with everything that we know, after all. ;)

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Art and life and death – a collation of points

When I began writing Boralos in 2003, my father had just completed his first course of treatment (radiation therapy, from memory) for his cancer. The treatment was successful, he went into remission, he was vibrant and healthy; we all got on with life.

All characters are, in some way, a reflection of the author; I always saw that reflection in my heroine Dacia's strong relationship with her father, one where he taught her a number of important things, some outwardly and some as by-products of living his life. It was only as I wrote, and dug deeper into the story – her story, and her development through the rest of the story – that I appreciated the significance of her father's death on shaping who she was and what she was doing with her life. That death plays no actual part in the story, but the shadow of Dacia's father lies across her for the duration of the story, a key if understated element of her unpacking of her self-identification.

My father died yesterday. He taught me how to tell tales. How to lie, how to tell jokes, how to speak to an audience, how to chat at a dinner party. He taught me rhetoric and pacing and rhythm without every mentioning those words. My mother made me a reader, but he made me a writer because he was the one who showed me how to start putting words together with the intent of achieving entertainment and communication of more than just their face value meaning.

He will never see me in print. I know he was proud of me, for reasons that are arguably better – for being a good person and being happy – but he will never be proud of me for that. And I sort of wish I'd told him all of this, that really it's him who set me on this path, but I don't think I'd even figured it all out myself until right now.

I love you, Dad. I will miss you.

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